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Alternate-World Rifle: Transitional War Weapon For Vietnam

Imagine a world where the M14/M1A never came to be. While we’ve given the M14 a lot of guff about being the shortest-lived mass-issue rifle in American military history — and therefore a failure — it still served an oft-overlooked role: as a transitory rifle.

Not transitory like it was ideal for use in trucks or tanks, or even well suited for humping around on the ground. Transitory in that it was full of features foreign to the M1 Garand but that would become standard for common infantry thereafter. Detachable magazines. Composite materials. And on some models, select fire.

Going from the Garand directly to the M16/AR-15 with no steps in between would’ve arguably been a bridge too far for the white-haired old guard. But today in this buildsheet, we’re playing with this idea. While we’re using some original parts and others collected over the years, at the end we’ll list sources where reproductions can be purchased.

Because we’re not going totally outside the realm of the real world, an actual Armalite XM-16E1 upper, carry handle, and all will be the base. It’s the small parts and pieces that differentiate minor model changes in earlier M16s. While the XM-16E1 has a teardrop forward assist to aid a round into battery if needed, it’s missing the brass deflector. 

The history of service ammunition in the United States reflects a consistent decrease in caliber along with increased velocity and practical accuracy capability. This has been the case since before American America, with colonists arguing about 75-caliber versus 69-caliber. Then, 69-caliber versus 54-caliber, and on and on we go. 

As such, there was some consideration on changing the caliber, but 20-inch .625 pencil barrels equipped with A1 A-frame front sights are a rare bird indeed. So, we ended up here at the never-happened .30-06 versus 5.56mm.

This barrel is 5.56mm, with the customary (at the time) 1:12 twist rate. The meandering twist rate of these old rifles means that outside of certain environmental circumstances, your best bet will be 55-grain ammunition — at least if you want to actually hit anything. We removed the original three-prong muzzle device and instead opted for a B.E. Meyers M249F because it adds length, like the original M14/M1A device. 

The lower predates reproduction and was a custom one-off, but a partial fence lower can be purchased from Harrington & Richardson through Palmetto State Armory. 

For furniture, a clone would have plastic or Bakelite, but in order to appease the alternate-world old generals, it would have to be something more traditional, like wood. Boyds Gunstocks has many wooden furniture options available in a variety of types and treatments. 

Here, we wanted to ensure it looked like a more-traditional setup, so we chose a hardwood laminate with a nutmeg finish. The Boyds pieces attach just like any other polymer stock set, relying on a delta ring assembly and endcap to secure it. Boyds designed these for an A2 endcap and not an A1, so some minor surgery was necessary.

Much like the oft-preferred A1 pistol grip, the Boyds we chose is missing the rubbin’ nubbin’ of the A2. The wood can feel pretty slick, so a piece of 3M ladder tape on the front or palm side could pay large dividends. There’s a recoil pad on the buttstock and also a sling stud instead of a loop.

Sights posed something of a conundrum. While leaving a naked carry handle would be what the world actually end up with, the smaller 5.56mm round would’ve been a much harder sell without a significant bump in capability. Adding a 4x carry handle scope would’ve made for an increase in individual capability, despite being a “poodle shooter.” Sort of like the “Every Marine, an ACOG” idea from the mid-aughts but set much further in the past.

While there are many such examples of these scopes and even original Colts running around (the Japanese Hakko is particularly well regarded), we went with an unknown maker acquired many years ago. We don’t have any worries, as it meets the bare minimum requirements of appearing correct and being readily attainable. Besides, while we all may dream of every rifle we ever put together being war-ready, we’ll find ourselves way, way downriver before this one is ever a primary weapon.

And now we come down to magazines. Even USGI 30 rounders look out of place, to say nothing of a Lancer or PMag. No, we’ll only use Colt 20 rounders with an occasional Brownells straight 25-round magazine with this rifle.

Finally, we finished it up with an M1907 match sling from Turner Saddlery. It’s a far cry from a modern, adjustable two-point sling but would’ve impressed those old generals.

All told, it’s a fairly handy rifle, but full of reminders of why we moved on from the musket-length M16s in the first place. The pencil barrel heats up, the scope technology dates from the Korean War, and it’s missing all of the modern ergonomic and accuracy improvements of today’s ARs.

And while we don’t really think this rifle would have passed muster right after the Garand, it would’ve been a worthy attempt. 

Parts List (which can be sourced now)

  • Boyds AR-15 Grip: $60
  • Boyds AR-15 Handguard: $81
  • Boyds AR-15 Buttstock: $96
  • Harrington & Richardson XM16E1 Lower Receiver: $370
  • Harrington & Richardson/Brownells XM Upper: $800 to 900
  • Brownells Retro 4x Optic: $399
  • B.E. Meyers M249F: $149
  • Turner Saddlery Sling $74

Total $2,129

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